Interview with EMA
As one half of noise-rock outfit Gowns, Erika M. Anderson has already blotted the landscape in her own, discerning way, 2007's 'Red State' having confounded and confused critics in equal measure. Upon the dissolution of Gowns last year, Anderson didn't simply hibernate to lick her wounds. Instead she's re-emerged under the guise of EMA (err, Erika M Anderson - easy innit?) to record and release one of the most astonishingly brutal albums of 2011.
'Past Life Martyred Saints', released last month on Souterrain Transmissions, is a nine-song voyage through Anderson's inner psyche that recalls the laconic 'Pretty On The Inside' period of Courtney Love's Hole coupled with the sassy bravado of Karen O. Contactmusic caught up with EMA on a beautiful summer's day in Brighton prior to only her fourth ever show on British soil.
'Past Life Martyred Saints' seems a very personal record. Where did the main inspiration for the songs come from?
EMA: It is really personal. I write a lot of the lyrics subconsciously and unconsciously, so sometimes I won't even know how I feel about something until it comes out in the song. Its like if something's really weighing on me and been building up for a long time and then all of a sudden I'll put it in a song and it makes me feel better afterwards. I don't do a lot of conscious writing.
Was it difficult to convey those emotions and thoughts into song?
EMA: The whole key is to make it as effortless as possible, to try to open up a whole strait of your brain and just have it spill out. As far as most of the lyrics go I actually spend very little time. The hard part is living through all this crazy shit and then trying to piece together what I feel about it.
Some of the songs on the record appear to be about the same person, whether that is you or a third party.
EMA: Well, I guess the record is mainly about one person - me. It's not necessarily about anyone else in particular. The hardest thing is being brave enough to just say, "F*ck it!" and write about this shit. Some of those songs are really old, as in REALLY old you know? I didn't want to expose myself back then.
When did you write the oldest songs on the record and which ones are they?
EMA: 'Marked' and 'Butterfly Knife' are the oldest. They date back at least five, maybe six years. The original tapes are pretty much the same versions as those that are on the record too. I tried to re-record them but it just sounded like bullshit so.
Did you ever consider using those songs with the previous bands you've played in?
EMA: Well yeah, I played both those songs with Gowns, and its possible that they would have ended up on a Gowns record had we still been playing together. We were working on another record when we kind of imploded, so it's possible some of 'Past Life Martyred Saints' would have been on there.
Going back to Gowns, do you see yourself working with Ezra Buchla again in the foreseeable future?
EMA: It's hard to say. I think we both need a little time and space away from one another. I'd like to see Ezra work towards making a solo record, because he's always creating really great stuff but then puts it out as a limited edition mini cassette or some other unattainable format, and I'd always be like "Whatever." If he does, I've got stuff that he recorded which I played on, and he said he'd like to use that one day, which I'd be willing to let him do, but ultimately I'd be really interested to hear what he came up with all by himself.
Was it quite a strange experience for you putting together a solo record having played in bands for so long?
EMA: No, it was actually so much easier, because I am kind of like a control freak, especially as far as my own stuff goes! I want something to sound in an exact way, so its kind of easier when I don't have to tell someone that I don't like their song or whatever. It is really hard because you're either asking someone to play on your record or you're playing on somebody else's and then you tell them its not working. It's a really difficult thing to do but at the end of the day I have to be happy with everything on the record, so you can't really please everyone. That's the beauty of making a solo record. Its totally about what I want, not anyone else. Its like what I was saying earlier about not wanting to expose myself lyrically as part of a band, yet here with this project it feels totally right. Also, in hindsight I couldn't imagine representing anyone else with some of those personal statements.
Did playing in Gowns give you a sufficient grounding in terms of what to expect from the music industry, especially now as a solo female artist?
EMA: You know what, Gowns was just so self-destructive. We were so anti-success.I don't know what was wrong with us! We didn't do anything. We had no one looking after our press, no booking agent; we never made very big plans for the future. It was almost like we were both a little bit scared of what might happen. I have no real experience of the mainstream part of the industry. I have experience of the DIY noise scene. We were always going out on tours but they'd usually be set up by someone new so you'd end up sleeping on floors. I'm surprised that 'Red State' really got out the way it did because its kind of a weird record, and it wasn't like there was anybody promoting it, y'know.
It couldn't be so much different to this record! So far you've received almost unanimously glowing reviews across numerous segments of the media. How do you feel reading press like that?
EMA: I actually want to cry! I'm stoked about it to be honest, it's great. One of my goals in writing this record - I mean, the cathartic process represents one side of it - was that it would create an eternal conversation about music. And about fidelity, and about production, and about technology, and about references. I would hope that if you do all of that well then it does reflect in the way people talk about it. Most of the reviews I've read come across as if the writer's genuinely excited about the record. The way they've tried to enter into that dialogue internally is quite surprising. It's weird. A lot of people have been asking me about that actually and I don't honestly know what it means. Who knows?!? It makes me worried that I'll never get to make another record because I'll be too terrified.
Does it worry you that because of the way 'Past Life Martyred Saints' has been received there'll be a growing weight of expectation placed around making a follow-up?
EMA: I don't think so. The people I'm working with at the label are pretty chilled. They're just happy that people want to listen. The only people that talk about this are journalists in interviews! Everyone around me doesn't give it a second thought. There's more emphasis on buying a sandwich from Marks & Spencer or wherever! I guess the more people ask me the more nervous I get, although the important thing is to have fun and not get tripped out.. I guess? Ask me again in six months!
Has the reception been as similarly ecstatic as it has over here in the UK?
EMA: It's been good. With Gowns we were definitely more popular in Europe than the States, especially Italy. Its funny because I always thought the Gowns record was very American yet it seemed to catch on quicker over here. Maybe you guys have a lot more mainstream but arty musicians?
How difficult is it to replicate the intensity of the record every time you play it live?
EMA: With the live show I don't like playing with samples. I don't want to use a lot of technology. My goal with the live show is to put on something fun, and hopefully have a good time, and try and make it wild. You're not going to hear every single sound that was on the record. It would just be me singing along to a bunch of backing tracks, and I really hate doing that.
Will there be any new unreleased material in the live set?
EMA: Not at the moment. We're mostly playing songs from the record. We're still a very young band, so I think we're kind of just getting ourselves together at the present time. Its fun though. They're all people that mean a lot to me.
Will any of them become involved in the writing process at any point?
EMA: It's hard to say. Sometimes I think it would be fun, but then I'm very single-minded in the way I write and construct things. When we start to deconstruct things and jam out as a group there have been times when someone's come in with a better part so.I dunno, we'll see!
Two of the songs which first brought you to the attention of UK audiences were your interpretations of Robert Johnson's 'Kind Heart' and Danzig's 'Soul On Fire'. Are there any other covers you're planning to release or play live soon?
EMA: I'd planned to cover 'Monster' by Kanye West, but it didn't quite come together. We were playing around and singing "Everybody knows I'm a muthafucking monster!" but I was talked out of it at the last minute. Maybe it's for the best?!?
Your final UK show of this short tour is later this evening. Are there any plans to return later in the year?
EMA: I think we're coming back in September for a full tour. I'm quite digging the UK a lot more than when I last came here with Gowns. I feel a lot more comfortable now, and the response so far has been great. I just daren't fuck up on any of these shows! I want to start drinking a lot earlier but my press people are going "No, not until after you've finished you interviews!" and I'm like, alright.
Finally, now you're based in California, do you have a medicine card to buy weed?
EMA: Do I have a medicine card to buy weed?! No! I know some people who do. You can get them quite easily. They're not hard to get.